You can almost feel the frisson that must have gone through what’s left of the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times when an anomaly in a fifty year old story seemed to hold out the possibility that RN was lying in the very first line of his 1978 memoirs where he writes that “I was born in a house my father built.”
Back on 10 January 1959, reporter Art Ryon scored an above the fold front page story (in the paper’s third —local news— section) with the dedication of the house that is still there, and still in the same place, on the grounds of what since 1991 has been the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace.
The Ryon story was headlined “Yorba Lindans Dedicate Nixon’s Boyhood Home”:
On a little knoll under a pepper tree in Yorba Linda stands a neat little white frame house, green trim on the bay window and on the cupola of the attic bedroom.
And the townsfolk of Yorba Linda yesterday proudly dedicated it as a historical site.
This was the childhood home of Vice-President Richard Milhous Nixon.
The bronze plaque on the big stone they set up on a side terrace says this was his birthplace.
“He was born in a hospital,” smiled Mrs. Frank A. Nixon, his mother, who looked pert and sweet and proud in a gray suit and pillbox hot [sic]. “But we lived here until Richard was 7.”
Flash forward half a century to the LA Times of 10 January 2009. Larry Harnisch writes “The Daily Mirror” column in which, each day, he “reflects on Los Angeles history,” usually through past issues of the paper. Last Saturday, under the headline “Another Nixon story challenged,” he featured, among several other items, the Ryon report, and commented: “Richard Nixon’s memoirs famously begin “I was born in the house my father built.” But his mother told The Times he was born in a hospital!”
In today’s paper’s blog pages, under the headline “Richard Nixon versus his mother,” Patt Morrison leads with the provocative question: “Who you gonna believe — Richard Nixon, or his sainted mother?”
Nixon said often that she was a saint — most notably as he was about to depart the White House after resigning the presidency in August 1974.
He also said often, as he began his memoir, “I was born in the house my father built.”
So, who’s right?
Amazing that Nixon, dead nearly 15 years, can still rouse political passions. Maybe it’s a new generation caught up in the movie “Frost/Nixon.”
In fact, most of Ms. Morrison’s very interesting blog has to do with the vagaries of editing and correcting entries on Wikipedia — with RN’s birthplace providing her case in point. That’s an important topic, but it’s one for another day.
Today’s topic is whether to believe RN or his sainted mother, and the answer is that even saints sometimes make mistakes. Or mishear a question. Or are misquoted.
But the answer is clear. RN is born where he says he was, in the house his father built.
Even if we didn’t have solid evidence, common sense would indicate that he was right. Even those of us who view RN in exceptionalist terms would think twice before claiming that, even prenatally, he had been so far ahead of his times as to have arranged being born in a hospital. He was exceptional, yes, but not that exceptional. In those days babies were born at home, sometimes with the assistance of nurses or midwives.
RN’s nurse was interviewed by Bela Kornitzer, whose The Real Nixon (1960) is the Ur document of Nixon biography. Kornitzer was a Hungarian journalist, author, and biographer who fled the communist regime in 1947. For his RN book he spent months interviewing Hannah Nixon and going through her accumulated papers and mementos; there can be no doubt that she knew and approved of his version of events.
On page 34 Mr. Kornitzer writes:
At the imposing Eatern Star Masonic Home for Women, in Beverly Hills, California, Henrietta Shockney, eighty-six, a trained nurse, sat in an armchair and searched her memory. She had assisted with Richard Nixon’s birth. With apparent emotion she fingered a card long in the possession of the Vice President’s mother; it carried Mrs. Schockney’s own green-inked note of the baby’s birthdate and weight.
“I remember the house at Yorba Linda,” she said. “It was a two-story frame affair, situated on a hill overlooking a deep irrigation ditch. He was an unusually big baby, with a crop of black hair and a powerful ringing voice. I believe he has retained both his hair and his voice.”
A graduate nurse from the Dr. Kellogg Institute in Battle Creek, Mrs. Shockney had been recommended to the Nixons by Dr. H. P. Wilson of Whittier. “I was anxious to assist Mrs. Nixon because she was very much liked in the community, and I considered it a privilege to help her.” She said the family paid her twenty-five dollars for one week. Had she imagined that Richard would grow up to be such an important man? “Of course not! All babies are more or less alike, and when one of them becomes famous we can ponder on the ways of fate.”